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Manchester United Tactical Review: Benitez Counter Attacking Masterclass

Lack of possession would worry most managers. Not Rafa Benitez.

Manchester United v Everton - Premier League Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images

Everton went to Old Trafford with a squad down to the bare bones. Most neutral fans wouldn’t have even heard of some of the players on the Everton bench but what mattered was the players on the pitch that gave their absolute everything to come away from Manchester with a point. I near enough wrote Everton off before a ball had been kicked and I’m sure a lot of fans agreed with me. Fortunately for us, we have a squad and a manager that all play for each other, fight for each other and have a never say die attitude from top to bottom.

Once again this season, Everton came away from the match having very little of the ball. Just 28.2% possession to be precise. Under a different manager and a different setup, most Blues would be extremely disappointed with only having this much of the football. The key difference with Rafa’s team is what we do when we do have the ball. Every attack, we look threatening. We push forward in numbers and at pace, something which we’ve lacked in recent years. Everton are bottom of the league for possession this season but only bettered by Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool for xG with 11.3. This shows how effective we are when we have the ball even if it’s only for a small percentage of the game. I’m sure us fans would prefer to see goals and minimal possession, than the opposite.

Ask multiple fans who their man of the match for the game was and I can almost guarantee you’d get multiple different answers. It was one of them performances where every single player on the pitch was excellent and did their job. One player I’m going to single out though, is Ben Godfrey. The reason being is the likes of Demarai Gray, Andros Townsend and Abdoulaye Doucoure will already be getting a lot of the plaudits for their excellent displays and rightly so.

Godfrey has come under a lot of criticism recently and most of it, to be fair, has been justified. He’s struggled returning to full fitness after Covid so it may not entirely be his fault but I thought against United we saw a lot more of the Godfrey of last season. He managed four tackles and six clearances, both of the stats higher than anyone else on the pitch. He was also trying to get into more advanced positions yesterday, finishing the game with a key pass to his name also. Anthony Martial, who was up against Godfrey in the first half, didn’t complete a dribble whilst on the pitch which says a lot about how Godfrey played. Mason Greenwood on the opposite flank managed four dribbles. Although he wasn't the best player on the pitch, I thought he’d deserved a mention after recent criticism.

Manchester United v Everton - Premier League
Ben Godfrey tackles Luke Shaw
Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

So far this season, Bruno Fernandes has managed 23 shots, the fifth highest in the league. Everton restricted him to just one, a 78th minute header which went well wide. This is due to our whole team shape, we sat in two banks of four and allowed minimal space between the lines. Doucoure and Allan deserve huge plaudits for this. If Bruno tried to get into the space between the back four and the defence, our midfield duo would block off the passing lanes which led to Fernandes having to come deep to get the ball. He’s a lot more effective picking up the ball in the final third and making things happen, like we saw for United’s goal. Unfortunately, we lost a bit of shape and an immaculate first touch from Bruno and a little bit of a deflection on Martial’s shot meant we went behind. It may not have been a very statistically heavy performance from Allan and Doucoure, who managed 4 tackles between them, their general shape and hard work was vital for us this weekend.

If you look back at around the 92nd minute of the game, Doucoure is seen pressing their centre half. His energy and stamina is up there with the best in the league (would love to see some data on distance covered per 90 for him) and I believe there aren’t many teams in the world that wouldn’t benefit from him being in their side.

Demarai Gray was named Man of the Match by the BT Sport team and there’s very little argument for that. He and Doucoure did unbelievably well for our goal and after watching it back multiple times it was seriously impressive how they got out of tricky situations to shift the ball on. Gray completed three dribbles, two key passes and as I mentioned was pivotal in the Everton goal. He managed one shot on target and it was an excellent bit of play. He received the ball, spun past a United midfielder, ran at the defence and unleashed a shot which forced De Gea to parry. I mentioned on my Twitter that we haven’t had a player like this for a long time. Somebody willing to get the ball on the half turn and run at players with freedom. He’ll be battling it out with Andros Townsend for bargain of the century.

Moving onto Townsend, he was unlucky not to receive the award also. Going forward, he managed four shots, two key passes, two successful dribbles and of course, the all important goal. What impresses me most about him, is he gets into these attacking positions but also manages to be one of our most important defensive players. He topped the Everton charts for interceptions and managed to chip in with a tackle and clearance too. Only Lucas Digne touched the ball more times for Everton.

Andros is slowly becoming a fan favourite and I’m sure a favourite of the manager too. Looking at the whole season, he is the only player in the whole league currently averaging two shots, two chances created and two tackles per ninety minutes. This is seriously impressive to be so effective in both areas of the pitch and I hope we see it consistently throughout the whole season.

Manchester United v Everton - Premier League
Cristiano Ronaldo with his idol, Andros Townsend.
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Another little mention to Anthony Gordon who was excellent and although is still very raw and has a lot to work on, he did himself proud against one of the best defensive full backs in the league. He and Digne created a great little partnership on the left which lead to 45% of our attacks coming down their side. The youngster’s certainly giving Rafa some headaches for after the international break, with Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin expected to return.

With two weeks for our players to rejuvenate and the injured players recover, we have three really winnable games. Hopefully we can keep this momentum going and pick up some more points heading into a tough run of games we have towards the end of the year.